Jim Carroll: Punk and Poetry
On the 1st of August 1949, American poet and punk musician Jim Carroll was born in Manhattan, New York City. Initially a pupil at Catholic schools, in 1964 he won a scholarship to the elite Trinity School, where he starred at basketball. It is at Trinity that he took up writing and started experimenting with hard drugs, mainly heroin. During this time he also attended poetry readings and workshops at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, which assembled such poets as Anne Waldman, Allen Ginsberg, and John Ashberry. Finally, in 1967, aged only 17, Carroll published his first book of poetry, Organic Trains, and landed excerpts of The Basketball Diaries in the Paris Review (later published, in 1978, as his memoirs). The Basketball Diaries, the book he is probably best remembered for, is an autobiographical account of Carroll’s life as a teenager experiencing New York City’s hard drug culture.
According to Alex Williams, “The Basketball Diaries, which Carroll wrote between the ages of 13 and 15, is a panorama of winos, preppies, hustlers, and fools. It’s New York picaresque – Oliver Twist with a habit”. (New York Magazine, 24 April, 1995). “A street kid from the Lower East Side, hooked on drugs, explores the act of writing as an alternative source of power, escape, and revenge. Carroll’s conflicting motives are deliberately left unresolved. …The two keywords in the title of The Basketball Diaries symbolize two opposite direction in Carroll’s fortunes. A promising career as a high school basketball player disintegrates as drugs take over his life. On the other hand, the act of writing the diaries provides a means of control over the chaos he is experiencing. “I think of poetry,” he writes, “and how I see it as just a raw block of stone ready to be shaped, that way words are never a horrible limit to me, just tools to shape”. The diary itself is written in prose that to some extent fictionalizes content and frequently approaches prose poetry in style. In one entry Carroll quotes a poem in verse that “I wrote on L.S.D. a while ago”. Its final line is repeated as the last sentence in the book: “I just want to be pure””. (Terence Diggory, Encyclopedia of the New York School Poets)
In an interview with New York Magazine’s Alex Williams to mark the screening of The Basketball Diaries movie (1995), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carroll recalled his basketball stardom days: “I was always such a fuckin’ gunner. Y’know, if they had a three-point line back then, I woulda scored, like, seven more points a game. But see, I wasn’t a natural one-step leaper. I didn’t have spring. But I worked really hard with, like, weighted spats and stuff. So by my sophomore year, I could dunk a ball, like, backwards, take off from the foul line. After a while, they’d have a guy just sitting there for me. Y’know?” (New York Magazine, 24 April, 1995). An unquestionable basketball pro, he also shone among the poets and writers of his generation. Jack Kerouac, for example, said that at 13, Carroll wrote better prose than 89 percent of the novelists in America.
After overcoming his heroin addiction in the mid-1970s, Carroll moved to California where he formed the Jim Carroll Band, a new wave/punk rock group. In 1980, the band released their debut album, Catholic Boy, “People Who Died” being their best loved single. “”People Who Died” is modelled on a poem of the same title by Ted Berrigan (1970). In the song, Carroll catalogues various names and types of deaths, with New York City as a frequent backdrop. Carroll’s energy, enhanced by the frenetic, punkish guitar chords lashing behind him, gives the song a sticky gravity. He finishes the verses and chorus with announcements of fraternity and eulogy: “They were all my friends, and they just died.” Like many of his poems, the song works both as a personal lament and as a communal outcry, but also a dark celebration of the song’s characters, who live on the edges of risk, addiction, illness, and war.” (Diggory)